Many of the historical newspaper subscription websites have a free trial period.
You will want to use this time to evaluate whether their newspaper and obituary collections will be helpful to your family tree research.
The best approach to maximize the trial period is to draw up a research hit list in advance. This article runs through four different ways to do this.
Why You Should Prepare For The Trial
An obituary in an old newspaper can be a pot of gold in genealogy. Oh, the glorious find that that names all the children, their spouses, and their children and spouses.
And what about the announcement in the small-town newspaper of a visit to Mrs. Willougbhy from her sister Mrs. Thomas Otto from Seattle? Wait, you’d lost the trail of your great-grand-aunt who left home an unmarried woman?
A week can fly by as you chase these new leads to new branches in your family tree.
And then you realize that your trial is over, and you’re not sure if you need the discounted six-month subscription. Are there any other leads to be found?
This is why I advise that you take a strategic approach to the trial period. Draw up a research hit list and work through it, making a quick note where you’ve struck potential gold.
If all your ancestors were rural farmers with little interaction with local towns, then you may find very few references. You may be able to complete your research within a free trial period.
Or you may just need one extra week to exhaust the available material on this particular platform.
Alternatively, different branches of your family may have settled across several towns and cities. Death notices, local announcements, fines, and court appearances: there may be enough material through fifty titles to keep you busy for months.
It’s worth doing as much as you can to figure out the overall coverage before you fall down a specific rabbit hole.
Your Research Hit List
You want to maximize your trial time or first week, so it’s best to do some preparation before you sign up for the trial.
You probably don’t have all the locations and time periods of your family tree in your head!
I recommend that you first prepare a target list that you can work through methodically over those six days of your trial.
Below is an excerpt from my hit list. I can work down the list by running searches for combinations of names and dates.
During the trial period, I’m moving fast through the list.
I simply note that at least one obituary or newspaper article appeared in the results. Often, my searches will come up empty.
It would be easy to get distracted by a useful obituary that invites a deep dive into researching every mourner listed in the write-up.
I suggest that for now, you simply tick the “obituary” box and move on to check for more indications of gold.
You may need five or six evenings to get through a large family tree. By the end, you can decide if it’s worth paying the subscription fee when you only found a single obituary.
But what if you found over a hundred obits and articles across fifteen states? That discounted annual membership is looking like a steal.
Preparing A Hit List Using Your Online Family Tree
Do you have your family tree on Ancestry.com, or MyHeritage.com, or another online platform?
Using the website will probably be the most tedious way to prepare the target list. But if you have a small tree, it shouldn’t take too long.
One way is to open your family tree and click into each tree entry to grab surnames, death dates, and death locations.
But your platform hopefully has a shortcut that displays a spreadsheet-style list of entries in your tree. I’ll show you an example for Ancestry and for MyHeritage (that’s a little less useful).
A Hit List From Ancestry.com
The Ancestry website will display a list of people in a list format. You access the list by expanding the Tree Search menu at the top right of the tree interface.
The bottom menu has a toggle for the number of people displayed per page. For this exercise, you should set it to the maximum.
Below is an excerpt from my people list on Ancestry.com. I’ve omitted some of the columns, like the birth details.
It would be nice if you could filter the list here on locations, but you can’t!
Using a spreadsheet
I like to copy the display to a spreadsheet where I can add any filters that I like. Just select the entire page (ctrl-a) and paste the values into your sheet.
It’s a pity that the date and location details are mashed together into one column, but at least the birth and death details are separated.
You can apply text filters to the death location to pull out everybody within New Jersey or England or Dublin. Whatever you need.
My Ancestry list shows the maiden names of women. Historic obituaries are most likely to use the married name.
So you may need to click into women’s entries on your website tree to grab those and add them to the hit list.
Yes, that’s tedious. To avoid this, you can try the software options I cover later. (Or use the MyHeritage web interface instead – I’ve got my tree on both sites).
A Hit List From MyHeritage.com
Is your tree on the MyHeritage website? Let’s take a look at the website interface.
The online tree has a “List View” option at the top right of the page.
To get the best display for this task, you can expand the Settings menu (the gearbox icon). Uncheck the “discoveries” display and toggle the option to display both the maiden name and the married name.
MyHeritage also lets you sort the list on the website by details like the death location.
That’s not as useful as it may seem, as it sorts alphabetically on the first word of the address. But it does ensure that all entries with no death location are on the last page(s).
My one gripe is that the display truncates longer locations. In the example below, the death place truncates to “Ne…”.
Is that New York? Nevada? To be fair, I’m familiar enough with my tree to know that this is New Jersey.
Using a spreadsheet
Here’s the bad news with the MyHeritage online display. It doesn’t copy into nice columns in a spreadsheet.
Everything gets dumped into one column, which is unhelpful for this task. It’s why I prefer using the Ancestry display.
However, you just need to spend a bit of time using cut-and-paste to move the data into useful columns.
Using Free Or Paid Desktop Software To Prepare Your Hit List
I’m going to give you a walkthrough of using one free application and one paid application to produce a location hit list.
You may already have your tree in desktop software like Family Tree Maker or Gramps or one of the many other options.
They will likely have similar features to what I describe in the next sections on
I’ll start with the paid software because it can generate a file that is ready to be used as your hit list.
The free Family Tree Builder doesn’t give me exactly what I want. But it’s a great help when used in conjunction with the website methods I described above.
If you use different software which can do similar, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Using RootsMagic (Paid Version) To Generate The Hit List
RootsMagic has a free and paid version of its software. The paid version has a feature that is very useful for generating hit lists that don’t need further manipulation to be useful.
If you have a tree on Ancestry.com, I recommend using the free RootsMagic Essentials to take backups to your local machine. We have an article on using RootsMagic to back up your Ancestry tree.
The “Who Was There” report on RootsMagic is a little hidden away, but it’s a gem.
Expand the Reports menu and choose the List menu item. The “Who Was There” list is right at the bottom of the choices.
The search interface lets you specify a place and a time range.
In the example below, I’m looking at people in my tree where I’ve recorded events in New Jersey between 1870 and 1930.
If you like to work with pen and paper, you can print out this list and work through it during your trial period with the newspaper archive.
Personally, I prefer to work with spreadsheets. If you’re the same, then you just need to hit the “save” button.
You will be offered several formats. Choose “text” and save the file to your desktop. The saved report is tab-delimited.
Use your preferred spreadsheet software to open the file. Here is your hit list!
Using The Free MyHeritage Family Tree Builder For Your Hit List
You don’t need an account or family tree on the MyHeritage website to use their free desktop software.
Family Tree Builder will import a family tree from a file. So, if your tree is on a website (or even in other software), you can export it to a format known as a GEDCOM file.
Here are some tutorials for different genealogy websites:
- Export your tree from Ancestry to GEDCOM
- Download from MyHeritage to GEDCOM
- Export from Geni to GEDCOM
Once you’ve got your family tree into a file, you import it into the desktop software. Now you can use the extra features to guide your research.
In particular, Family Tree Builder has a great report that shows where your family branches have clustered. This lets you identify which places to target on the newspaper archive sites.
I’ll show an example using my own tree.
Index of Places
Family Tree Builder has a feature called “Places” that you will find under the View drop-down menu.
You can sort the display by the number of references in your family tree to each location. In other words, how many times the place is mentioned in birth, death, or other address details.
In the example below, I could also have limited the locations to the USA by using the Find filter.
Identify the low-hanging fruit
Now you can use your head (and some internet searches) to identify which locations have the most potential for “easy” research.
For example, Westfield in New Jersey has a current population of 30,000 – while Brooklyn is at 2.5 million.
An archive with a local Westfield newspaper may be more valuable to me than access to New York titles.
This is simply because it should be easier to identify my relatives within a small population base.
Starting a hit list per location
At this point, you can select an individual location and the software will show you where it’s “used”. This list would be perfect if it showed the dates, but it doesn’t.
You also can’t export this list, which is a design flaw in my opinion.
You will need an extra step to build your hitlist.
If your tree is on the MyHeritage website, you can use the location filter to generate the hit list with names and dates – exactly as described in an earlier section.
We have a video tutorial that covers a lot of this if you like visual instruction.